Despite putting up some decent numbers for the Blue Jays over the last two years, Teoscar Hernandez doesn’t get much credit. Why is that?
Now that the calendar has flipped to 2020 and the holiday season is coming to an end, we can probably expect the MLB rumour mill to start heating up again.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, a lot of the most important work is already done after they significantly upgraded the starting rotation by signing Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark as free agents, and also trading for Chase Anderson from the Brewers. However, there a few remaining roster needs, and one of the most frequently discussed has been a possible upgrade in centre field.
Last season that position was handled by a variety of Blue Jays, especially after Kevin Pillar was traded to San Francisco in April. The outfield captain’s job was initially handed to Randal Grichuk, who made 62 starts there last season, but eventually Teoscar Hernandez unexpectedly took over up the middle, making 79 starts.
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The reason Hernandez’s move to centre was so surprising was because he’s not exactly viewed as an elite defender. In fact, Hernandez was flat out bad as a corner outfielder in 2018, posting a -2.0 dWAR rating according to baseballreference.com, and generally looking lost at times. I will give credit where credit is due though, as he ended up being serviceable as a centre fielder last year.
Do I want to see Hernandez retain the job heading into the 2020 season? Not particularly, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ready to write off the 27-year-old just yet. Personally, I think the key will be to use him properly, and to set him up for success in the best way possible. I’m not sure asking him to play the most important outfield position would qualify.
While he might be a below-average player if he’s slotted in centre field, Hernandez still brings plenty to the table if he’s used to the right way. Ideally, the best chance for success for the native of the Dominican Republic would be using him at designated hitter and keeping him off the field altogether. That said, I can understand why the Blue Jays would want to give him another year to show improvement on defence as well, as he did make strides there last season and could be a decent corner outfielder if he continues to take positive steps.
There were some encouraging signs to that end last season as well, especially when he wasn’t in centre field. Taking a look at his defensive numbers on fangraphs.com, while his URZ (Ultimate Zone Rating) sat at -7.3 when he played in centre, he was in the black while playing in left field, coming in at 2.8 in 46 games. That wouldn’t be worth writing home about necessarily, except that he posted a -8.6 mark in 2018 in 79 games in left, showing significant improvement. For context, Mookie Betts had a 12.9 UZR rating in RF last season, and is considered one of the better defenders in the American League at an outfield corner.
For Hernandez, it was a marked enough improvement that there is reason to believe he can be at least an average outfielder, and that will be enough if he can consistently contribute on offence. That’s a question that hasn’t been totally answered yet either, but he’s certainly a more dangerous weapon with a bat than a glove at this point. He has 48 home runs and another 48 doubles over the last two seasons (spanning 259 games), and was a different player after an early-season demotion to Buffalo.
If you look at Hernandez’s splits from 2019, it was a tale of two seasons, much like it was for Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who was also sent back to Buffalo in order to ‘get his groove back’ early in the year. Have a look at the difference for Hernandez:
.204/.267/.361, 8 HR, 8 doubles, 27 RBI in 216 at-bats
.259/.346/.592, 18 HR, 11 doubles, 38 RBI in 201 at-bats
Granted, it’s not easy to keep up solid production over the course of an entire 162 game season, but that season half is roughly one-third of what a full season worth of at-bats would be. If we’re crudely tripling the numbers, we’re talking about a guy who could have 50 home run potential. Sure, the lively baseball of the 2019 campaign may have helped, but this is still a hitter with big-time power.
I’ll be the first to admit that I would like to see the Blue Jays find an upgrade in centre field, or at least move on from having Hernandez as the primary option there. While he’s made some improvements and could continue to do so, I think it’s asking more than he’s capable of to play up the middle. However, that doesn’t mean I think they should give up on his bat, or even having him play in the outfield on a semi-regular basis. If he’s deployed properly, Hernandez can be a real weapon for the Blue Jays, and might even be one of the more underrated hitters in baseball.